When Ensign Kim runs a holodeck program of the medieval tale "Beowulf," a mysterious presence seizes control of the holodeck, causing crew members who enter to vanish without a trace. Only the Doctor may have the ability to successfully investigate and retrieve them.
When Kim disappears inside his program, Janeway sends Chakotay and Tuvok to investigate. Upon entering the holodeck, they discover the shutdown routine and safety devices do not work (surprise). They come across a warrior named Freya (Marjorie Monaghan)—the king's daughter—who has information that may help them. Kim, who was playing the part of the hero Beowulf, was killed by the evil monster Grendel, she explains. Chakotay tells her that he is Beowulf's kinsman, here to avenge his death, and that he wishes to face Grendel. Tuvok and Chakotay hope to find answers to the holodeck takeover from Grendel. They find evidence that Kim apparently went through the process of matter-energy conversion (uh-oh) due to some unthinkable malfunction. When they encounter Grendel, however, they become victims of matter-energy conversion.
Sporting the ultimate in anti-climactic teasers and a completely by-the-numbers first act, "Heroes and Demons" initially looks like a failed Voyager concept to be the first to join the series of clichéd Next Generation holodeck plots. Fortunately, the story takes a perfectly appropriate and creative twist in the second act by putting the holographic doctor in the center of the action.
Using information Chakotay and Tuvok retrieved before vanishing, Janeway concludes that Grendel is the key to the mystery and that sending more people into the holodeck would likely result in their vanishing as well. This leads to the idea of transferring the Doctor's program into the holodeck to investigate. Since he's a hologram with no matter, he conceivably would be unaffected by the problems in the holodeck.
This is where the episode starts to pick up. One limitation Picardo's character has faced up to this point is that he's a doctor—and only a doctor. Not only is he often limited to spouting medical technobabble, he's been faced with the prospect of doing all his acting on the sickbay set. This plot gives Picardo an opportunity to escape the confines of sickbay and play the hero while also offering a startling amount of depth to his character. Several scenes reveal that this character has feelings and desires beyond the limitations of his programming, and, hopefully, future episodes will put the Doctor's new characterizations to use.
The Doctor even chooses a name before leaving for his mission—Dr. Schweitzer. (However, since he decides to abandon the name by episode's end, I will continue to call him "the Doctor" to avoid confusion.) In the holodeck program, the Doctor meets Freya, who takes him back to the perishing kingdom hall, which sits in defenseless terror of another attack by Grendel. The setting benefits from a number of lively holodeck characters. Freya's strength and compassion balance to make a respectable heroine, while the menacing Unferth (Christopher Neame), a warrior who doubts the Doctor's abilities, proves to be a believable roadblock to our hero's progress. King Hrothgar (Michael Keenan) is a pitiable, helpless man who has to watch his kingdom fall in front of him.
The Doctor's ability to allow matter to pass through him convinces the kingdom that weapons can't hurt him. Perhaps they have hope of repelling Grendel after all. The kingdom hall cheers and labels him their savior. Here, Picardo's looks of confused bewilderment are priceless.
In fact, this is a good episode for Picardo all around. It features his genial presence at its best, working well for the episode's humorous moments and dose of mild goofiness, as well as the serious character-driven scenes. A scene between the Doctor and Freya provides some genuinely effective soul-searching dialog. The moment when these two holographic characters kiss works surprisingly well. (The idea may seem slightly inane, but it displays one of the best qualities about Star Trek stories—their ability to take the audience anywhere.)
The plot, alas, turns into another lame-brained exercise in the obvious when Torres and Paris discover the mysterious entity in the holodeck is another misunderstood lifeform which the crew had beamed aboard the ship after mistaking it for an energy source. The "Grendel" alien changed the crew members into energy in retaliation for the crew's inadvertent "kidnapping" of two others of its race. Give me a break. You would think the crew would've learned their lesson after "The Cloud." This revelation can be so easily predicted a mile away that I wanted to slug the characters for taking so long to figure it out.
But I don't care too much that the life form plot isn't particularly inventive. The Doctor's adventures in the holodeck are much more important, and they work. In order to negotiate a peace treaty with the aliens, the Doctor must hand deliver one of the captured life forms to the "Grendel" alien as a gesture of good faith. On the way he is confronted by Unferth, who attacks him after mistaking the lifeform for a talisman to destroy the kingdom. Freya shows up in time to save the Doctor's life but pays with her own. Freya's death scene also works very well with a bit of theatrical aura.
Naturally, the Doctor is successful in his task, and all three crew members are released unharmed. Janeway logs a commendation in the Doctor's file for his successful first away mission. "Sounds like you had quite an adventure in that holodeck, Doctor," she says. Yes, he did.
Considering how many facets of the Doctor's personality and emotions this hologram program ends up tapping into, it's quite a substantial episode for the Doctor. Some viewers may find themselves saying, "It was just a program. Freya wasn't a real person, and she didn't really die." I say don't overanalyze the situation. Remember, the Doctor is only a hologram himself. (I guess, in a sense, these holo-characters are his own people.) Restarting the holodeck program to bring Freya back may sound like an easy and obvious solution but would also constitute poor drama.
Aside for the recycled bit with the lifeform, I'd like to see more like this from Voyager. An ambitious score by Dennis McCarthy and convincing production design supply added bonuses. But please give the Doctor a name already.